TORONTO — And then there was one.
In late 2014, the Raptors traded swingman Rudy Gay to the Kings for a mishmash of role players — Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez — as a precursor to tanking. But then they started winning. And then they kept winning. Behind DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and head coach Dwane Casey, the Raptors etched out a path to respectability, broke franchise records and made the postseason five times in a row.
It was the springboard to what they are now: the East’s No. 2 seed, armed with a top-five player, an honest shot at the Finals and a runway clear of LeBron James, who went west to Los Angeles after laying waste to Toronto for years. But Lowry, the mercurial floor-burnt heart of the team, is the only original left with a chance to enjoy the spoils of what is now the most talented roster in franchise history.
Everyone acquired in the Gay deal walked, except Vasquez, who was flipped for the picks that became Norman Powell and OG Anunoby. Terrence Ross became Serge Ibaka. Casey was fired last May after the Raptors were swept for the second year in a row, replaced by his assistant, Nick Nurse. DeRozan was dealt alongside Jakob Poeltl for Danny Green and a year-long audition for Leonard, who becomes a free agent this summer. And on Thursday, about an hour before the trade deadline passed, the bet got even riskier. The Raptors were trading Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round pick for Memphis Grizzlies All-Star center Marc Gasol.
So it is that Raptors president Masai Ujiri — a man who claims to loath the business side of basketball, who called Casey one of his favorite people at the news conference following his firing, who referred to the DeRozan trade as the part of the business that would one day make him leave the NBA — reckons once more with the theme of his tenure: leaving behind the people who got you where you are because they can’t get you where you want to go. It’s a perfectly American story playing out above the border.
“I just heard Pascal say, you feel the camaraderie, you feel the family and then we have to do these kinds of things,” Ujiri said at the Raptors practice facility on Thursday after the deadline. “It makes it difficult. Jonas was a baby with us, grew up with us. We drafted Delon Wright. These guys have been special in our organization the last five years, four years with Delon. … [Valanciunas] is a No. 1 team-first guy, tough guy that gave us everything. That was a tough phone call today with him and emotional. He’s such a phenomenal person that gave this franchise his all.”
Winning has its price. Today, it was the organization with family photos plastered in the hallway of the locker room trading its longest-tenured Raptor.
On the court, the reasoning is self-evident: Gasol lives at Valanciunas’ ceiling.
For the past five years, dating back to when he was an assistant, Nurse worked with Valanciunas to modernize his arsenal and turn him into a player who operated above the paint, where the game’s important decisions are now made, instead of plodding in the post. Valanciunas brandished his 3-point range and started hoisting one attempt per game. Gasol attempts 4.2. Valanciunas honed his dribble hand-off game and started hitting open cutters at the rim. Gasol is the best passing big man this side of Nikola Jokic, an ecosystem at the high elbow. Valanciunas was learning to position his busy 7-foot frame in ways that sucked up space and passing angles, mitigating his lack of speed. Gasol mastered that years ago, winning the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2013. Gasol is older now, a spry 34, but he is still better than Valanciunas right now. The Raptors tried to turn Valanciunas into Gasol, and then they traded him for the real thing (that arc might sound familiar to DeRozan’s).
“We added a player that’s very savvy,” Ujiri said. “In the playoffs, you need experience. Going forward, you need a really strong basketball mind, toughness. You need size, you need shooting from outside, basketball IQ. He combines it all. He’s another guy that can get you a bucket. You can throw it down to him. I think that will relieve us a little bit with Kawhi and Kyle.” He added that he’s talked to Gasol, and the three-time All-Star is “really excited” to play in Toronto and contend for a championship.
Gasol is in the midst of his last productive years, while Valanciunas still has room to improve. But Gasol is better today, and the Raptors hitched themselves to the present when they traded for Leonard. They no longer have the luxury of waiting in the wings, making them the third Eastern Conference team to try to eke out an edge in the razor-thin playoff race before the deadline. The Philadelphia 76ers gave the Clippers a haul for Tobias Harris, a star-in-waiting whose contract expires at the end of the season, while the Bucks added sharpshooting big man Nikola Mirotic — moves that apparently did not affect the Raptors’ decision-making.
“As an organization we don’t look at what other teams are doing,” Ujiri said. “We respect other teams, but we have to be who we are and try to do our best within what we can do under the framework of what our goals are now and in the future. I think with a player like Marc, we had talked about it for some time and it lined up well for us.” A league source confirmed Gasol had been a Raptors trade target since they realized Memphis would unload him for a reasonable price.
To that end, the Raptors succeeded. They added a dynamic, playoff-weathered star without giving up their prized assets, Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. Gasol’s contract also expires in 2020 when Lowry’s does (if Gasol picks up his player option), clearing the runway for a clean rebuild if Leonard walks at the end of the season.
So it is that Lowry, who was also in trade rumors, is now the Raptors’ longest-tenured player. The tension between business and basketball is real for Ujiri, for whom basketball is a secondary passion — maybe even a vehicle — to his desire to uplift the lives of the people in his home continent of Africa (he was born in Zaria, Nigeria). The podium at the Raptors’ practice facility is his pulpit, where he is one of his birthplace’s loudest advocates. Winning gives him a seat at the table. And in lock-step with any other front-office head that has caught fire for prioritizing business over relationships, winning can vindicate everything that came before it, and whatever comes after.
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